Electronic Design

Graphical Tools Inject A Healthy Dose Of Ease-Of-Use Into Text-Based Languages

A software package adds a new dimension to industry-standard development tools like Visual Basic.

A breakthrough in software technology adds graphical-programming capabilities to industry-standard tools like Visual Basic. Called SoftWIRE, the tools provide a way to combine the speed and ease-of-use of graphical programming with the flexibility and power of writing code in text-based languages.

To program in SoftWIRE, a product of ComputerBoards Inc., objects are placed on the screen and connected with drag-and-drop wires. The program is then ready to run. This is no standalone package, though. It must be run from within a development environment, such as Visual Basic.

The company developed this product as a way to take a bite out of the learning curve associated with syntactical programming languages. With those products, the initial effort is high and output is low. Graphical programming, on the other hand, is relatively easy for beginners to learn. It relies on the commonly understood concept of connecting together familiar, common-sense symbols in a wired diagram (see the figure). This virtually eliminates the learning curve.

Syntactical programming can be extremely efficient, however, due to an attribute called compact notation. In a few lines, text-based programs can do what it takes graphical programs many symbols to do. Complex graphical programs can become large, slow, and difficult to understand because they lack compact notation. ComputerBoards says that graphical programming is physically less compact and generates more machine instructions than syntactical programming for the same function. According to the company, the ratio is at best 10:1. At worst, it's 20:1.

Both Approaches Possible
The company hopes to use SoftWIRE to exploit the best aspects of each approach. A novice programmer might initially use purely graphical-programming techniques and then, after gaining experience, incorporate syntactical techniques. Experienced programmers may use the graphical approach when confronted with new domains or little-used functions, such as making certain kinds of electronic measurements.

The product supports the company's complete line of measurement, control, and GPIB interfaces. DAQ control blocks support the complete range of functions required by users.

All of its control blocks are fully COM-/ActiveX-compatible and are easily interfaced to Visual Basic programs. A key advantage of SoftWIRE's COM/ActiveX implementation is that all control-block parameters may be set via program control or with property page menus.

Because the technology is based on standards like ActiveX and COM, ComputerBoards has published the specification for creating SoftWIRE-compliant controls. It encourages ActiveX vendors and others to create and market controls that encapsulate domain-specific functions. Information about SoftWIRE technology and the public specification can be found on ComputerBoards' web site.

The company believes SoftWIRE extends beyond traditional test and measurement solutions, calling it "an ideal software interface for any Visual Basic application." It doesn't matter whether the application is home or office automation, X-10 control, laboratory analysis, or database management. Several patents are pending on the technology. Future plans for SoftWIRE include versions for other popular programming environments, such as Visual C++.

Price & Availability
SoftWIRE Graphical Programming for Visual Basic is available now and is priced at $495. (SoftWIRE requires Visual Basic 6.0 or later, Professional or Enterprise editions, which are available from a variety of computer software vendors.) ComputerBoards also is offering a 30-day free trial without obligation to buy.

ComputerBoards Inc., 16 Commerce Blvd., Middleboro, MA 02346; (508) 946-5100; fax (508) 946-9500; e-mail: [email protected]; www.computerboards.com.

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